Winter was driving me nuts. Stark raving bonkers. While I lay limp on the sofa, like some fainting miss from another century, he was cleaning with a vengeance. Yes, it afforded me an excellent view of his nicely shaped bottom, but the man wouldn’t sit still.
Ordinarily, of course, I wouldn’t have complained. Having someone do my housework for me should have been manna from heaven. But he’d spent all of yesterday cleaning and the day before that. Not to mention most of the weekend as well. I didn’t think there was a single inch of my flat that wasn’t sparkly. Apart from the old lady covered in cobwebs and sitting in the far corner staring at me. But she was another story.
Brutus was curled up on the windowsill, his tail twitching. Winter had learned the hard way not to interrupt him while he was sleeping. That corner was about the only safe place; everywhere else was being scrubbed and polished to within an inch of its life.
‘Why don’t you take a break?’ I suggested.
His head jerked up. I’d never get tired of those blue eyes looking at me. ‘Are you alright? Do you need a break? A cup of tea? A biscuit? More painkillers? How about…’
I held up my hand. ‘I’m fine, Rafe,’ I said softly. ‘I don’t need anything. But you need to stop cleaning. There’s no more dirt. You’ve scared it all away.’
I breathed out a sigh of relief.
‘I’ll just bleach the grout in the bathroom—’
‘Raphael!’ I bawled. ‘Please, no grout! The grout is fine. It doesn’t need bleaching.’
‘There’s a bit in the corner that looks grubby.’
I didn’t think I’d ever had such a long conversation about grout before. In fact, I didn’t think the word grout had ever passed my lips. ‘Just sit down. Relax. You’re like a perpetual-motion machine.’
He gave a brief nod and perched on the sofa beside me. He was hardly relaxed, however. He looked as if he were about to spring up at the first sign of a mote of dust. I pushed myself up towards him, ignoring the flash of pain that rapidly uncoiled deep in my chest and seemed to spring out in all directions. I leaned my chin on his shoulder.
‘Chill for a bit,’ I whispered. I twirled my fingers into the dark curl that was edging adorably round the nape of his neck and gave it a gentle tug. ‘There are other things we can do. You don’t have to clean.’ I let my fingers trail down the nubs of his spine, seeking out the bare skin just above his belt. Winter groaned slightly – then he pulled away. Arse.
‘You know what the doctor said.’
‘I really do think I’m feeling better.’
He turned round and met my eyes. ‘Good,’ he said. ‘But we can’t take any chances.’ He dipped his head and brushed his lips against mine, feather light as if he thought his kiss might break me. What he didn’t realise was that the touch of his lips had broken me long ago. I was Winter’s, body and soul. I couldn’t see a future without him in it and all I wanted to do was to feel him wrapped around me for eternity. I couldn’t say exactly when I’d transformed into the sort of soppy sack whom I’d normally slap around the face and truthfully it didn’t really matter. Having Winter here with me was about the best thing that could have happened. But, good grief, he needed to learn the art of relaxing.
The old lady cackled and I jumped. Winter frowned at me. ‘What’s wrong?’
Somehow I didn’t think ‘I see dead people’ would encourage him to chill out. ‘Something walked over my grave,’ I dismissed. That was truer to the mark than he realised. ‘It’s nothing.’ The old lady scowled at me as if I’d just cursed her firstborn. I passed a hand in front of my eyes. Maybe I really was going mad.
‘Do you need another blanket?’ Winter asked.
‘Shall I plump your cushions so you’re more comfortable?’
‘Do you need…’
‘Rafe,’ I sighed. ‘All I need is you.’
His mouth curved into a smile. ‘You’ve got me, Ivy Wilde. I’m yours.’
I smiled back happily and snuggled deeper against him. ‘I know.’
‘When I lived here,’ the old lady interrupted, ‘I always had flowers on this windowsill.’ She frowned at Brutus. ‘Not a cat. Filthy creatures.’
Brutus opened a slitted eye in her direction. Wait a hallucinatory minute; could he see her too?
‘And my lounge chairs faced in the other direction.’ The old woman sniffed. ‘You have the furniture arranged all wrong.’
Brutus went back to sleep. I wrinkled my nose; I couldn’t ask my perpetually hungry familiar about the old lady with Winter here. The last thing I wanted was to worry him with the fact that I was still hallucinating. He’d have the doctor round here in an instant. Or worse, he’d demand that I went back into hospital just to be sure that I wasn’t dying. It was lovely having someone so concerned about my health but it could be a bit tiring too.
Princess Parma Periwinkle, Winter’s familiar, strolled in and gave him a meaningful glance. He shot to his feet. A heartbeat later, there was a knock on the door. Winter all but ran for it.
I sank down again, hearing a soft murmur of voices. Eve appeared, a hesitant smile on her face. ‘Ivy! How’s the invalid? Are you alright? Is there anything I can get you?’
I groaned. Death by solicitous concern. ‘I’m fine,’ I told her. ‘Really.’ Then I paused. ‘Actually if you could get me some gummy bears from the corner shop, that’d be lovely.’
‘Gummy bears.’ Eve nodded. ‘No problem.’
‘And maybe some salt-and-vinegar crisps. A multi-pack. The ones with ridges.’
‘A family-sized chocolate bar,’ I added for good measure. ‘And—’
Winter rolled his eyes. ‘How about a cup of tea for you both instead?’ he said, heading for the kitchen. I grinned. This was awesome.
Eve sat down, raising an eyebrow in my direction. ‘You’ve got him wrapped around your little finger.’
‘I have – although he’s driving me a little crazy,’ I confided. ‘He won’t take two minutes to sit back and rest. I don’t think unemployment suits him.’
‘Have you spoken to him about the Order?’
I sighed. ‘I’ve tried. It’s like talking to a brick wall. He doesn’t want anything to do with them. But…’ My voice trailed away.
‘Without the Order, he doesn’t know what to do with himself.’
I nodded. Eve understood. The Hallowed Order of Magical Enlightenment might not be my cup of tea but it was what had sustained Winter for many years. Now that he’d abandoned them because of what had happened to me, he was lost. I wanted him to be happy – and being part of the Order made him happy. But now he seemed determined to forget they existed.
‘He’s missed,’ Eve said quietly. ‘Not just in Arcane Branch either.’
I could well believe it. Winter’s dedication to all things bureaucratic and witchy was the stuff of legend. It didn’t matter how many times I told him that what had happened up in Scotland had been entirely voluntary on my part. No one had forced me to half kill myself by absorbing the magic from a teenage necromancer; my eyes were wide open and I knew what I was getting into. When I broached the subject with him, however, Winter always changed it. He was even more stubborn than me – and that took some doing.
As if bored by us, Princess Parma Periwinkle let out a delicate yawn and wandered towards Brutus, giving the old lady a wide berth in the process. I watched her bat in idle boredom at Brutus’s tail, which was hanging down from the sill, and considered.
‘Actually, Eve,’ I said, ‘could you do me a favour? And I don’t mean shopping for junk food. Could you fetch Harold and bring him round? I’m, um, missing him.’
She looked dubious. I could well understand it – when Brutus, Harold and Princess got together, feline shenanigans always ensued. This was important, though.
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